Why Was Medusa Cursed?
Medusa was one of three Gorgon sisters who lived in a cave at the edges of the known world. While her sisters were immortal man-eaters, Medusa was the only one of the three who could be killed.
Despite her mortality, Medusa was the deadliest of the three. She was so hideous that the mere sight of her could cause a man to be petrified into solid stone.
According to one famous writer, however, Medusa was not always the most grotesque of the three monstrous sisters. In fact, she had once been a great beauty.
The Roman poet Ovid included Medusa in his epic collection of Metamorphoses. According to him, Medusa had been cursed by Athena.
Her supposed crime was an assault by Poseidon in the goddess’s temple. For this infraction, Medusa was transformed into the most terrible looking monster the world had ever seen and eventually hunted down and beheaded by one of Athena’s favored champions.
Medusa is remembered as a horrible monster, but in some later versions of the myth she had not always been so hideous.
In the oldest stories of the Gorgon, she had been born just as monstrous as her sisters. The only difference between Medusa and the other Gorgons was that she could be killed while they were immortal.
There are some indications in classical literature that the story of Medusa was not always seen in such simple terms, however. As early as the 4th century BC, Pindar referred to her as “fair-cheeked,” a term associated with traditional feminine beauty rather than a grotesque monster.
The real change in Medusa’s character came in the Roman era. Ovid, one of the era’s most prolific writers, included her in his Metamorphoses.
This collection of myths brought together many stories of characters who changed forms as part of their stories. Many were ancient tales, while others seem to have been rewritten or entirely created by Ovid.
In Ovid’s version of the tale, Medusa had been born with much different features than her sisters. While they were immortal monsters, she was renowned as one of the most beautiful women in Greece.
As was usually the case in Greco-Roman mythology, her beauty attracted the attention of a god. In Medusa’s case, it was Poseidon who was drawn to her.
The sea god found her in a temple of Athena and assaulted her on the spot.
Such an act would be a violation of the sanctity of any temple, but it was particularly insulting for Athena. As a virgin goddess she was appalled at the desecration of her sacred space.
It was not Poseidon who was punished, however. It was his victim, Medusa, who bore the brunt of the goddess’s wrath.
Athena punished her by turning her from a renowned beauty into the most hideous monster in existence. Medusa’s long shining hair was turned to snakes and her features were twisted beyond recognition.
She became so hideous that the mere sight of her could cause a man to turn to stone.
Medusa fled to the cave where her already monstrous sisters lived. From there, Ovid’s tale continues the familiar narrative of her beheading by the hero Perseus, who was aided by both Athena and Hermes in his quest to kill the monster.
According to Ovid’s account, Medusa’s punishment by Athena was just and appropriate for her crime. To modern readers, however, it seems like a cruel act in which the victim was punished, and eventually killed, for the actions of her assailant.
Ovid’s was not the only account in which Poseidon had some sort of relationship with Medusa. He was generally considered to be the father of Pegasus and Chrysaor, who sprang from the Gorgon’s neck when she was decapitated.
Hesiod’s account, written nearly eight centuries before Ovid’s Metamorphosis, specified that Poseidon met Medusa in a meadow, however, not in the temple of Athena.
Nor did Hesiod clarify whether or not Medusa was beautiful when Poseidon slept with her. These details appear to have been inventions of Ovid in the 1st century AD.
The characterization of Medusa as a formerly beautiful young woman was a very late addition to the mythology of the ancient Mediterranean world. Most Greeks would have been unfamiliar with Ovid’s version of events and accepted Medusa as a born monster.
Hers was not the only story of transformation created by Ovid. The poet collected nearly 250 stories in Metamorphoses, several of which can be found nowhere else in the surviving texts of the ancient world.
Ovid grouped his vast collection of poems by subject and theme, even by geographical location. The work is still considered a masterpiece for the ways in which it connected stories and drew both parallels and contrasts between the tales.
With such an eye for theme and symbolism, Ovid likely elaborated on many older and less fleshed-out stories to achieve his desired effect. Details were added and entire plot points embellished for dramatic effect rather than an adherence to tradition.
In fact, Ovid was known for the creative ways in which he addressed well-known tales. His poems are viewed by modern analysts as examples of engagement with established stories and the poetic forms in which they had previously been written.
The story of Medusa’s curse is not the main subject of Ovid’s story. Instead, it is grouped with the love stories as a single scene in the larger tale of Perseus and Andromeda.
The original tale of Perseus had no instance of physical transformation, and thus no basis for inclusion in Ovid’s work. The story had be be embellished so that one of Greece’s most famous heroes and founding kings could be included in a thematically-appropriate way.
Ovid was certainly familiar with the unclear origin story of Pegasus and Chrysaor, and may have known the few texts that alluded to Medusa as having once been a great beauty. The idea of the Gorgon having been cursed by Athena allowed the story to fit in among tales of avenging gods and deserved punishments.
Many modern readers are unaware of Ovid’s stylistic reasons for changing the details of established stories and of the relatively late date in which he wrote. Today, many accept the story of Medusa as a victim of Athena’s anger as a standard part of the story of the monster and her death at the hands of Perseus.
Many modern readers thus interpret Medusa as the victim of a patriarchal culture that punished female victims for crimes committed against them.
The Greeks, according to all the surviving sources of the story, had no concept of Medusa as ever having been cursed, however. Until the popular works of the Roman poet Ovid, Medusa was simply seen as a monster.
Throughout most of ancient literature, Medusa was considered the most hideous monster to have ever existed. The mere sight of her could turn a man to stone in an instant.
Some ancient sources hinted at the idea that Medusa may not have always been so terrible to look upon, however. She was known to have been a lover of Poseidon and was occasionally referenced with favorable attributes of beauty.
These scant descriptions of Medusa before her beheading by Perseus inspired the Roman poet Ovid to re-imagine her in the 1st century AD. He included her in his Metamorphoses, a collection of over two hundred myths that centered around incidents of physical transformation.
Ovid was known to take poetic license in these stories, however. The transformation of Medusa seems to have been an invention to give the larger tale of Perseus and Andromeda’s love story a place in his collection.